Archive for March, 2013

Broken Things

If you haven’t figured out by now that I have a flawed character fetish, then you haven’t been paying attention to my blog posts.  Much like Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones fame, I have a soft spot for broken things.  A lot of this stems, I think, from my own severely flawed personality.  Although I know I seem normal enough over the internet, in person it’s very evident I’m an incredibly broken individual in many ways.

I don’t say this out of remorse or because I’m seeking some kind of sympathy, I long ago came to terms with who I am.  Astrid’s mother, in the book White Oleander, makes mention that artists benefit from having troubled pasts and flawed personalities because it allows them to appreciate the beauty in the world in a way that others can’t.

I’ve mentioned in a lot of past posts the importance of giving your characters flaws, emphasizing that readers don’t really like perfect characters, but I haven’t yet addressed the topic directly.  Why should you give your characters (protagonists, antagonists, and even the minor characters alike) flaws and how should you go about doing it.

One of the main reasons often cited for giving a character flaws has always been because it makes them feel more real and relatable to the reader.  The readers may recognize those character’s flaws as ones they share and thus be able to better identify, deciding with sigh of relief that, “oh yes, this heroic individual struggles with a sweets addiction too, he is a real person”.  I’ve never much liked this explanation, personally, and most of the examples given as “flawed traits” you could give your character always seemed too pedestrian to me.  Yes, I suffer from a serious sweet tooth, but I’ve never thought of it as a flaw, so much as, just another aspect of my character (and the anthropologist in me can’t help but note it’s an evolutionary adaptation hijacked by the change in environment from our EEA, but you guys don’t want to hear about that).

When I talk about flaws, I’m not talking about a propensity for swearing that makes your character quirky, I’m talking about deeply rooted emotional, physical, and psychological flaws that the character struggles with on a potentially damaging level, that overall ups the ante in the plot for the character and gives them a real struggle.

There’s a growing trend in storytelling media lately, steering away from the past over-simplified character categorizations of good guys and bad guys, towards a greater blurring of the lines.  The most notable example of this would be ABC’s show Once Upon a Time, which takes the Disney characters that defined those oversimplified archetypes and smeared them into various Disney-esque shades of gray, so that now I find myself rooting for Snow White’s wicked step-mother, Regina, more often than Snow White and her Prince Charming, David.

Nearly every show is scrambling now to present characters that are not pristine poster children for the “good” and the “bad” sides, but rather, individuals with their own personal motivations and reasons for chasing after them.  The only exceptions, nowadays, seem to be comical caricatures that make a joke of the stereotypical hero and villain dynamic.

This all falls in line with the reality that there are no bad people just people who do bad things.  And I would even take that a step further and assert that there are no bad things just means to a character’s desired end.

When you think about character development from this perspective, it opens the door for your antagonist to be capable of kindnesses and your protagonist to be capable of cruelties.

These are the types of flaws that make your characters more relatable because, truthfully, everyone has a dark side.  We all have terrible urges from time to time; most of us push it down or find different outlets, though sometimes…sometimes in moments of desperation we follow through on those terrible urges despite knowing how wrong they are, and we wouldn’t mind the comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone, that others feel this way and sometimes do these things too.  Not in a sense that condones it, not because we want to believe that we’re right in our dark urges, but because we want to believe that we’re human in our errs, and that to err is human, and that the characters we read about are human’s that err.

If you have a hero that always makes the right and noble choice without so much as an internal struggle, well then no amount of a sweet tooth is going to make that character relatable to someone who lied to cover her own ass that morning because one more strike and she would be out of a job even though it meant her co-worker would take blame alone, or to someone who dinked a car on the street when pulling out but was late to pick up his child so in a panicked rush decided not to leave a note.

Letting your character be tempted towards the “dark side” every so often, even letting them give in to bad urges, will make them far more human, but the trick is in doing it believably and not letting them drift so far that they completely cross the line to villain, in the same sense that you can let your villain drift towards the light-side, even toe the line a bit, just don’t forget they’re the villain.  The key, of course, is all in the motivations.

So how do you do this?

The best and easiest way would be to look at yourself and ask a few uncomfortable question: what are the worst things that you have done, what are the worst things that you have thought about doing, and what is the one thing that can make you do any unspeakably horrible thing, what would you steal for, what would you kill for, what would make you throw all your moralities out the window?

Now, what is it that keeps you from doing these terrible things?  Why do you have the morals you do?  Why do you believe certain things are good or bad and what makes you adhere to them?

Once you have a fairly good picture of your own inner workings, you might ask these questions of your friends and other loved ones, until you have a firm grasp of motivations in people.

The tricky part comes in asking these questions of your characters.  Although your hero may (though not always) reflect many of your own answers, the characters that are farther from your own personal life perspective will be a struggle and you may be tempted to take the simplified route, diminishing their motivations until all you’ve left is “because they’re the bad guy”, which would then be a huge, glaring flaw in your story; and while readers may like characters with flaws, they like stories to be perfect, or as damn near as you can get.  My recommendation for this is to read, and more importantly, read about perspectives that are so far removed from your own that it’s like having a conversation with an alien visitor from another planet.  Read non-fiction books on psychology and philosophy, fiction books featuring heroes you despise.  The only way to write what a multiplicity of people think, feel, do, without making them all read like one person or a slew of two-dimensional cookie-cutter characters is to know that their are other thoughts out there.

Read, and also, don’t try to write characters.  Don’t even think of them as characters, maybe even don’t refer to them as characters when you discuss the story with friends.  Try to write people, talk about them as people, see them as people, because how can you expect your readers to believe your characters as real, if you don’t?

Tyrion does heroic things for his often villainous family, so does that make him a hero or a villain?

Tyrion does heroic things for his often villainous family, so does that make him a hero or a villain?  Also, can you tell which series I recently discovered and eagerly anticipate the return of?

Who Am I Writing This For Anyhow?

I was once given the unsolicited advice that my writing should be for me.  At the time I wasn’t very polite in my response, but as I said I didn’t ask for the advice.

Writing is not easy.  If you think writing is easy, you’ve never done it.

Writing can be fun, especially the part when you’re dreaming up the story, the characters, the world, but the actual act of placing that story into words and committing it to paper is a long, arduous, and painstaking process.  It takes blood, sweat, tears, and a whole lot of coffee to get a finished manuscript, and then comes the cycle of submission, rejection, submission, rejection, until you have a mental break and start to consider a “real” job.  Writing is not for the faint of heart.

Coming up with stories, storytelling, that part is for me.  I love to tell stories.  The process of coming up with characters, imagining new worlds, and becoming entrenched in it and the lives of these characters, that part is for me.  But writing, sitting for nights into months into possibly years on end, putting the words on paper, that part is most definitely not for me.  I’m a lazy lady, no joke.

So why bother?  If the fun part is in dreaming it up, why write it all down?  Now some people might be saying at this point: well, for the money obviously.  To which I laugh, hysterically.  Celebrity writers like Neil Gaiman and JK Rowlings, who have turned millions off their books, are rare success stories.  Most writers are lucky if they can make ends meet without a second job.

So...who am I writing this for anyhow?

The answer is actually very simple.  If you can’t figure it out, you’re thinking about it way too hard.

Struggling a bit?

Okay, fine, I’ll help you out.

It’s the readers.  (Doh!-moment, maybe?)

Remember back in English class when your teacher talked about the part in the writing process when you identify your audience (aka, the readers)?  Being able to identify your readers is important in determining how to write the story because only in knowing who your readers will be, can you then ask important questions of your characters and the plotline during the development and writing stages.  Will the readers relate to the character’s emotional dilemmas?  Will they understand the dialogue?  Will they be interested or invest themselves in the conflicts?

Over the course of human history, storytelling has become an elitist trade that many now romanticize with notions of self-fulfillment and personal expression, but storytelling has always been a craft of entertainment that communicated to a wide audience the different states of the human condition.

How is that any less romantic, you wonder?

Okay, maybe I’ve a bit of a romanticized view of storytelling as well, but look at the first definition of storytelling, it is all focused on the writer and his/her experience and what the story he/she tells means to him/her. Now look at the second definition, it is all about the audience (readers) and their experience and what the story being told means to them.

The story is not the writer’s story; it’s the characters’ story.  And the story being told is not for the writer’s benefit, but for the reader to enjoy and experience.

So what is in it for the writer?

Well, for me it’s always been in seeing and hearing about the readers’ response.  The way they cry when the protagonist loses a dear friend, the way they become angry when the antagonist seems to be winning, the way they light up when the lovers first kiss, and feel torn when the lovers must part with no hope of seeing one another again, only for them to feel overwhelmed with insurmountable joy when the lovers reunite at last.

For me, the readers’ experience with the story is like a way of constantly reliving my experience dreaming up the story for the first time, that fun part that comes before all the tedious writing.

Typically in writing, we (the writers) have a tendency towards fantasy-fulfillment as the basis of our stories.

Maybe our main character is a downtrodden teenage girl, unpopular at school and constantly picked on.  Maybe, she’s a reflection of our self, the writer, and maybe we want her to miraculously transform into a total ass-kicking babe, to stand up to her bullies and beat them into submission, gain the attention of the school heartthrob, and together they ride away into the sunset towards some unknown happily ever after.

But when you’re writing for an audience, it forces you to forgo your own selfish desires for the story and its characters and write what you know will make the best story for the readers and, if you’re honest, ultimately for yourself.

So that maybe our main character is still a downtrodden teenage girl, unpopular at school and constantly being picked on.  Maybe she’s still a reflection of our self, the writer, but maybe she doesn’t undergo a miraculous transformation.  Maybe her life rains and then pours on her.  Maybe her parents get divorced, her brother jumps off a bridge, her dog runs away.  Maybe her best friend betrays her for the popular crowd, and tells them all the juiciest details of the deepest secrets she once shared with said friend, especially about a crush on a particular heartthrob that only uses the information to humiliate her further.  Yet maybe, at hitting rock bottom, she finds a friend in the least expected of people, perhaps another downtrodden individual that she once scoffed at as beneath her until she realizes her thoughts were no different than those of her bullies, and she learns that standing up to the bullies will only make way for other bullies, and that the only way to truly defeat them is to move past them and find strength and acceptance within herself.

Is that maybe a little better of a story?

It’s not to say that writing for yourself isn’t perfectly acceptable, because it is.  Many people find keeping a private journal very therapeutic, but when you’re writing for someone else, you become accountable to someone else, and for someone else’s experience and emotions.  That’s when you’ll find the motivation to dig deep inside and uncover the greatest story you can tell.

Trust me, write for the readers.  It’ll make all the difference.

Back in a Flash

Recently finished my midterms.  I took the last one yesterday, and I feel pretty certain I bombed it, but then, what kind of sadist of a professor gives you an hour and a half — correction, fifteen minutes, to write an essay critiquing two articles on the evolution of prosocial behavior!  I need at least three hours and forty pages for something like that.

Anyhow, I figured I hadn’t posted anything in awhile and, in lieu of my recently reading up on the definition of “flash fiction” (this morning to be exact), figured I’d give a try at some because, you know, brevity is not a skill I’ve mastered.  (See above).

Anyhow, this is a short story I literally brainstormed and wrote moments ago.  I would love any feedback!  Otherwise, I ask you to read and, hopefully, enjoy.

Casting Stones
Word Count: 732

Dorothy stowed her coat in the hall closet and brought her housewarming gift, a pricey bottle of Merlot, into the kitchen.  Ma sat at the breakfast nook table working on a crossword, several pens shoved into her tightly bound hair.  She barely looked up over her bifocals when Dorothy entered.

“Hey, Dot,” Ronnie called from the stove, expertly tossing the sautéing vegetables with a quick shake of the pan.

“We need to talk, ma,” Dorothy said.  Who honestly needed greeting those days?  They were family; after all, formalities seemed antiquated between families.  She slammed the Merlot on top of the nearest countertop; it clanked robustly and she folded her arms over her chest.

“If this is about the other night, I’ve already taken care of everything,” Ma mumbled, still focused on her crossword.

“Taken care of everything?  What have you taken care of, huh; the clean up, the lies, the police?  But what about the explanations, ma? What about the comforting and support?” Dorothy stamped her foot on the tiled floor, “What about me?”

Ronnie placed a hand on her hip and sweetly said, “You know that we’re here for you, Dot, whenever you need…”

“Oh shut it, Ron,” Ma slammed her paper down on the table and tossed her bifocals atop it.  She stood, crossed the room, and promptly slapped Dorothy across the cheek.

It stung, of course, but Dorothy was used to the burning pain of her mother’s scathing palm.

“You’re acting like I lied to you your whole life, kept things a secret until they came up and bit you on the ass.  I never hid from you what you were, Dorothy,” Ma declared, shuffling into the kitchen and digging through the drawers, finding a waiter-style corkscrew and slamming the drawers shut.  She grabbed the wine bottle and began working at opening it.

Dorothy gave a petulant sniffle, leaning across the counter to watch Ma work, pouting somewhat.

“I really liked Alexander is all.”

“Well I warned you,” Ma grumbled.  The cork popped from the bottle with a resounding bang and set off a ringing in Dorothy’s ears.  Ronnie passed Ma a few long stem wine glasses.

“And there’s no…no way to reverse it?  He’s just…stuck like that?”

“I’ve heard one rumor, haven’t had opportunity to prove it true, yet, but if you want to give it a go,” Ma answered, passing a full glass of the deep red wine over, sitting like a pool of blood.

“Oh?” Dorothy perked, swirling her wine and tentatively sniffing it.

“All we have to do is cut off your head and bathe him in your blood.  How’s that sound?”

Dorothy wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at Ma.

“You’re so horrid, Mira,” Ronnie chastised, accepting her own glass of wine and giving it a taste.

“Well, the girl won’t stop her whining.”

“But there’s no other way?” Dorothy pressed, sipping her wine, and eying the two older women across from her almost hopefully.

“Not that I’ve ever heard of, and believe me, if there was a way, I’d have found it centuries ago,” Ma replied, mournfully remarking, “And then you would have known your father.”

Dorothy sank down further over the counter, absently swirling her glass and glaring blankly across the kitchen. Ronnie remained respectfully silent, sniffing at her wine and taking another sampling.

“It’s not a curse, you know,” Ma suddenly said, a suspicious whist to her tone.

“It’s not exactly the birthday present I was hoping for either,” Dorothy muttered, chugging down her wine and clattering the glass back down to the countertop.

“Okay, fine, you have a look that turns men to stone and maybe sometimes it turns men to stone that you really quite liked and in order to fully enjoy really needed in the flesh, but Dotty, my love, from this you’ll learn strength and perseverance, there will be heartache, like Alexander, but you’ll learn that heartache won’t kill you, yet make you wiser and that time moves on, and perhaps, one day, you’ll understand how to fully wield the power you’ve been born with, for now, we’ll settle for getting it under control.”

Ma took Dorothy’s hand in her own, gave it a reassuring squeeze, and Ronnie slipped her hand into Ma’s, twining their fingers, and Ma met Dorothy’s eyes, an almost proud smile on her lip.

“Most of all, you’ll learn you’re not alone.”

(** Amendment: Probably should’ve noted that this story wasn’t exactly proofed or perfected before posting.  I just kind of wrote it as it popped into my head.  Retrospect, probably not wise to put rough draft material up, but hey, I needed to post something.  Certain things seem non-sequitur – like Ma slapping Dorothy – mainly because I didn’t know where the story was heading when I wrote that bit and I needed someone to do something.  Maybe I’ll go back through and do a rewrite, post that later, sort of show the progress of a story through editing stages.  For now it’s just a puzzle of the piece…**)

If I had to be honest…

I’m already frustrated with my new project.  The 500 words a day project that I’ve been doing so well on my daily word counts for, going above and beyond the writing goal.

I kind of rushed right into it because March snuck up on me before I finished developing the plot and characters and all that good stuff.  Damn you February for being so short!  Why didn’t you eat your vegetables when you were younger so you could grow to the size of a real month like the other eleven?

Irrational anger aside, I guess my major problem with the project is that I’m not getting the tonality of it right.  I want it to be a gritty sort of emotional diatribe alla Catcher in the Rye, or maybe more ambiguous in  the vein of Albert Camus, except something people read because they want to not because it was assigned in English class, but right now its reading like some Young Adult feel good piece, after school special type crap.

Maybe this isn’t so bad in that I sort of vaguely decided to aim for the Young Adult audience in writing it.  I partially believe my stilted voice is due to my mentioning the piece to my good friend who eagerly decided she ought to be able to read it.  I know her, she most likely won’t read it, even if I twisted her arm over it, but when I first envisioned it, I knew it wasn’t really the type of story she would enjoy reading and now I’m second guessing myself because what if my apathy, or more appropriately, aversion in her interest determines her to follow through and read it.

Anyhow, I’m taking a deep breath and with all things I write, trying to assure myself that this is just the first draft and I can re-write and re-work the story in later stages.  Or I could toss it altogether and start over from scratch.  The point of this exercise being simply to finish it.

Finish it.  Right.  Easier said than done.

But I’ll follow the Dorie philosophy and just keep swimming.

And since I’m confessing things, I guess I’ll go ahead and admit that I’m only writing this quick post because I’m trying desperately not to clean my room right now.  Sigh, me and my terrible procrastination habits.

Moral of story: Don’t tell people you’re writing something if you aren’t sure you really want them to read it because chances are pretty good that they’ll want to read it and you’ll develop a bad case of stage fright.

Now where did I leave my head again…?

School has kind of got me in a headlock at the moment.  Midterms are coming up and, following tradition, I’m rushing into full blown panic mode.  I’ve already taken my first Japanese exam and I feel pretty confident about it, I only entirely bullshitted a few of the answers.

I have another test on this coming Tuesday for an anthropology class, the title of which I cannot recall for the life of me, it’s something like human biology evolution behavior whatever.  Hopefully that’s not on the test.  I’ve just recently been hired to take notes for one of my fellow students in the class that suffers from some disability. I don’t know who they are or what their disability is because, according to the Disability Resource Center’s training video, I don’t need to know, they really emphasized that point which I found strange because, to be quite frank, I would never want to meet this person.  It’s nothing personal against them, I just don’t like new people.  I’m a little socially disabled, he/she is note-taking disabled, we’re a match made in heaven.  Sort of.

Okay, not really.  Point is, I think I’ll be okay on that test.

Another exam I have in two weeks, for my Evolution of Culture class, I’m a little worried about.  And by a little, I mean I’m completely freaking out.  It’s all on the inside, of course, on the outside I’m cool as a cucumber, you know, except when I’m ripping someone’s head off for asking me how I’m doing that day or some equally offensive question.  My professor for this class is French.  That’s not really important, I just wanted to note that although he’s clearly been in the states a while as his accent is very diluted, it grows more pronounced the more passionate he becomes in his lecture, which is kind of awesome.  The only real complaint I have about him is that he’s far too intelligent, and I don’t think he understands that the majority of the class is not on the same wavelength as him.  I’m really hoping that his test will be mostly multiple choice, but I sense that this guy is a “short/long essay” kind of test giver, and if that’s the case, I may fail.  Miserably.

My last exam is Human Growth and Development.  I’m torn on that one.  The professor has given us ample study aides, including review sheets and practice essay questions.  Which mean, if I use the study material, I have an incredibly good chance of acing the class.  That’s if I use the study material.  There’s a lot riding on that “if”; motivation and wherewithal and whatnot.  At least in that instance, if I fail I know it’s entirely on me, and I can’t shaft even the most inventive of responsibilities onto the professor.  Darn her and her crafty helpfulness.

Once midterms are over, then I can enter academic catatonia in response to upcoming term papers that I need to write, one of which I screwed myself over on with an incredibly complicated topic choice (“very interesting”, my professor called it, I was just making things up) and the other I haven’t a clue yet what the topic will be about, tune-in next week for the critical meltdown on that one.

Outside of school, I’ve been getting some writing done.  The short story I shared a clip of a short while back is about half-way finished, it’s sitting at 3,600 words right now (I know, I know, what’s taking me so long) and I’ve begun a novel-length project, my goal for which is, starting from March 1st, to write 500 words a day towards this project, and finish the first five chapters by the end of the month.  Thus far I’m a couple hundred words over the goal (just finished my 500 for today), so, you know, yay!

And now, I’m off to study.  Yes, this is my Saturday night, I feel so cool…

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